Q&A With: Sudhinder Thakur

This leading executive in India's civilian nuclear power program tells us that his country's recent agreement with the United States will help in a plan to use thorium as a fuel

5 min read

Sudhinder Thakur, a 58-year-old mechanical engineer with a degree from the University of Delhi, is executive director of corporate planning for the Nuclear Power Corp. of India Ltd. (NPCIL), a government enterprise charged with building and running the country’s nuclear power plants. He sat down with IEEE Spectrum Senior Editor Harry Goldstein in the company’s offices in Mumbai in January to talk about the recent agreement between the United States and India that could ultimately provide India with access to light-water reactor technology and uranium. Thakur also spoke about India’s indigenous program, which will ultimately rely on a combination of fast breeder reactors and thorium, an element that in India is more plentiful than uranium.

Spectrum Online: What is the status of the fast breeder program?

Sudhinder Thakur: In October 2004, we poured the first concrete for a 500-megawatt fast breeder reactor, the first of its kind for commercial purposes in India, and it is expected to be completed in 2011. It is being set up near Chennai at Kalpakkam by Bhavini, a satellite company that the Indian government has set up to build fast breeder reactors. At the moment, nuclear power plants can be set up only by government companies.

SPECTRUM: Is that going to change with the agreement with the United States?

ST: Yes, hopefully. That is what we are waiting too see. The government is considering opening up the nuclear sector to private partners. There needs to be an amendment to the act of 1962, which states that only the government can build, own, and operate nuclear facilities on its own or through government companies.

SPECTRUM: Eight years—is that usually how long it takes to build a nuclear plant?

ST: This is the first of its kind. NPCIL has set up other kinds of reactors in about five years, from the first pouring of concrete to criticality, and then another six months before commercial operations begin.

SPECTRUM: What is India’s total nuclear-generating capacity?

ST: We have today 3900-MW capacity and 2880 MW of capacity under construction, in addition to the 500-MW fast breeder reactor.

SPECTRUM: How does the U.S. agreement to supply uranium and light-water reactors help India move to thorium and fast breeders?

ST: We have a very limited amount of uranium but plenty of thorium, so we have developed a three-stage program to exploit it. In the first stage, we load pressurized heavy-water reactors with natural uranium, which consists of 99.3 percent uranium 238 and 0.7 percent uranium 235. That 0.7 percent produces most of the power. Some of the uranium 238 does, however, get converted to plutonium, and when the spent fuel comes out, we can separate the plutonium out.

In the second stage, we load the right mix of plutonium and uranium 238 into fast breeder reactors, which produce energy and more plutonium. Later on, we put a blanket of thorium around the reactor, and some of it converts to uranium 233, which we extract. In the third stage, we use the uranium 233 as fuel.

We have enough thorium in the country to meet requirements for thousands of years, much more than our supplies of coal or other sources of fuel. So, this three-stage program has great potential, but the technologies needed for the final stage will take decades to fully develop.

SPECTRUM: What about India’s more immediate needs?

ST: We are consuming about 600 kilowatthours per capita annually, compared with 13 000 kWh per capita in the U.S., and we are importing most of our energy, in the form of oil, gas, and some coal. If we can import uranium, then we can set up these nuclear power stations based on international cooperation, in addition to our indigenous program.

We think that 20 000 to 40 000 MW of capacity can be added with this cooperative program with the U.S. in the next 30 years. It depends upon how fast—you know, sometimes these international developments go very fast and then sometimes they are very slow.

SPECTRUM: Japan and France both had fast breeder reactor programs, but neither one is operational now. Why will India’s fast breeder succeed where others have failed?

ST: The requirements of each country are different. For us, what’s important is energy self-sufficiency. Japan is interested because fast breeders use the waste left over from the first stage. And now people are realizing that at the rate we are using uranium, the world’s supply will be exhausted by the year 2050. So fuels are going to have to be reused.

SPECTRUM: Within the next two to three years, you’ll have an additional 2880 MW of capacity coming online from nuclear reactors?

ST: Yes.

SPECTRUM: But, conceivably, all of this could accelerate quickly if parts of the industry are privatized?

ST: It is not a question of privatization but of international access to reactors and fuel. When privatization comes, the next question is how much we can set up in the existing framework. In the next five-year plan, from 2007 to March 2012, we will propose to the government that we add 10 000 MW of nuclear capacity through this imported route. This is in addition to the 2880 MW of capacity that our indigenous program will add.

SPECTRUM: What were the circumstances that lead to the new agreement?

ST: We agreed to separate our civilian from our military programs, which will be subjected to the same inspections that other countries are subjected to. Whatever we have agreed to for our civilian nuclear facilities, we have also agreed to for power production.

SPECTRUM: What’s the next step?

ST: We will separate our activities, and we will be subjected to IAEA [International Atomic Energy Agency] inspections. It is not right to say that first we will separate our activities and then we will sign an agreement. All these things are happening simultaneously. We will negotiate what is known as the 1-2-3 agreement with the United States—which will mark the conditions for the availability of the technology from the U.S. and nuclear supplies, too—and we will negotiate further international agreements with the Nuclear Suppliers Group [a group of nuclear supplier countries that seeks to contribute to the nonproliferation of nuclear weapons] and the IAEA.

SPECTRUM: How much does electricity generated by your nuclear plants cost now, and will this agreement ultimately make it cheaper?

ST: Using indigenous supplies of uranium, we are competitive at distances of 800 to 1000 kilometers from the closest coal mine, because of the cost of transporting the coal. Now, suppose we had access to international fuel; then the same reactors would be competitive even much closer, and possibly they would be ”location neutral,” which means that wherever you are, you should be able to compete. With the availability of uranium at international prices, the nuclear power reactors set up with foreign cooperation will be competitive with thermal power plants located much closer to the coal mines. The tariff of our oldest power station at Tarapur (the Tarapur Atomic Power Station or TAPS-1&2) is about 2 cents per kilowatthour and the average tariff of nuclear power in the country is about 5 cents per kilowatthour.

For more about India’s nuclear power program, visit NPCIL’s Web site at https://www.npcil.nic.in.

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